x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The king of the swingers

Seve Ballesteros was a swashbuckling genius on the golf course and fully deserves his lifetime achievement award.

Seve Ballesteros holes on the final green to win the British Open at St Andrews in 1984.
Seve Ballesteros holes on the final green to win the British Open at St Andrews in 1984.

One of the most indelible sporting images of my lifetime is that of Seve Ballesteros punching the air with delight after holing the putt to win the British Open on the 18th green at St Andrews in 1984. I had made my professional debut at the Old Course that week and will always be grateful that I was there to witness Seve's unforgettable celebration after overcoming the challenge of Tom Watson.

Earlier this week, when my favourite golfer received his BBC Lifetime Achievement award from an emotional Jose Maria Olazabal, his Ryder Cup buddy was not the only one who shed a few tears. Seve, who is recovering from a brain tumour, earned the respect and love of millions worldwide not just because of his achievements, his swashbuckling style of play characterised by remarkable recovery shots from impossible positions, and his genius around the greens.

He is remembered for his passion for golf which often burst out for all to see when he sank a crucial putt or holed a chip from off the green, and for being one of the most charismatic players the game has produced. Seve came on the scene when golf needed a new hero, and he filled this position so well. He transformed the European Tour and made it attractive and fashionable for large corporations to pour in sponsorship money.

He challenged American supremacy and rose to become the world's No 1 golfer in an era when Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam were also inspired to reach the pinnacle of the game, in the process delivering regular success in the majors and the Ryder Cup to Europe. Seve's achievements in golf, like those of all other players with the exception only of Jack Nicklaus, have been overshadowed by the success of Tiger Woods who has now stepped away from the game in an effort to save his marriage.

Regardless of how long he stays away, Woods will be unmoved in his belief that he can still go on and surpass Nicklaus's haul of 18 victories in the majors and set many other records along the way. With the timing of his inevitable return unknown, the biggest concerns now being expressed are more about the loss to golf rather than the condition of his wife, who is the biggest victim of her husband's waywardness.

Under growing pressure from the US media to address the scandal that has shocked the game, Tiger has managed to put his value to it at the top of the agenda. On the face of it, most find it difficult to imagine the PGA Tour without Woods, but while the analysts calculate losses in terms of television audiences and the effect on sponsorship, the Tour goes on. Traditionally, Woods does not play much golf on the west coast of America during the early part of the season. In each of the past three years he has played in only two of the eight events on the calendar before the Tour makes its way to Florida; and just one more prior to the Arnold Palmer Invitational which is his last tournament before the US Masters at Augusta two weeks later.

If he was to be absent from any of this year's majors he would obviously be missed, although there are enough good golfers around to remind us that, regardless of the Tiger effect on crowds and cash flow, no one player, ultimately, is bigger than the game. Phil Mickelson was always going to be the player expected to have a big year in 2010 after the way he finished off 2009, winning his last two tournaments, both times when Woods was in the field.

Mickelson has as much ability as his great rival and their games are very similar, both often struggling for consistency off the tee but able to produce stunning iron shots and brilliance around the greens. From within 50 to 100 yards of the flag, Mickelson is the best player the game has seen while there has never been a golfer to equal Tiger with a putter in his hands. In his younger days Mickelson was a genius on the greens as well, although in recent years the magic has faded.

He started to rediscover his touch in the summer and began to look like the Mickelson of old, the player most likely to challenge and succeed Woods at the top of the world rankings. As 17 out of his 37 Tour victories to date have come on the west coast swing, he will be confident of adding to that total next month. Meanwhile, after a year which has seen so much promise from golf's new generation of stars, Rory McIlroy stands out as the one who may have the real passion for the game that makes a major champion.

It is wonderful to see so many youngsters with incredible talent coming through, but I am not sure that we have yet seen one with the flare and passion that the young Seve had in abundance when he arrived on the European Tour in the 1970s. There is such a small margin between the golfer ranked at No 100 in the world and players in the current top 10. As Seve demonstrated, there is so much more to golf than a good swing - in his case a beautiful one. Confidence, good decision making and clarity of thought make the biggest difference at the top level. And you need charisma to be a hero.

Former European and US Tour player Philip Parkin is a member of the TV golf commentary team for the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US. sports@thenational.ae